A meeting of minds

France’s oldest Cognac house and one of the country’s most celebrated conceptual artists have joined forces to collaborate on  Martell Premier Voyage a partnership between Martell Cognac and Bernar Venet  who have recently combined their legacies to create a set of exclusive limited edition pieces. Founded in 1715 by Jean Martell, quality is characterised by Martell as the house is committed to sourcing the finest ingredients to ensure refinement and sophistication are at the heart of its cognac brew.

Venet’s origins are in the 1960s and he has considered his art a craft that has innumerable ties with the world of logic, restraint and carefully considered composition. Venet’s challenging stance directed toward conceptual art is in harmony with the Martell’s tradition of striving for the best.

You are considered one of the living legends of art Bernar, but what are the landmarks of your career?
There are moments which count a lot for me. One of them was when I, at the age of 27, exhibited in Germany and the most important museum in Europe, Kunstmuseen Krefeld, bought some works of mine from the exhibition. Although nobody proposed an exhibition in a gallery to me, the museum proposed a retrospective exhibition, and that was one of those big moments. Then of course when I completed my first Indeterminate line sculptures, which everybody became very interested in.

Then there are moments like a retrospective in New York when you are 30 years old, that one’s pretty good. Otherwise, times like when Sotheby’s arranged a big show for me in Florida, near Orlando, with the idea of putting together a historical exhibition with huge names like Picasso, Léger, Miró. Suddenly, though, they asked me to make a one-man show in the same place exactly and suddenly the entire art world was questioning, who is Bernar Venet? They soon got their answer, it was a huge commercial success.

Why do you think you had such appeal from the very start of your work?
Everybody hated it, but it was actually extremely radical intellectually and theoretically it was very, very new. A few people said commended me, then others started to believe it and then there was a lot of questioning aimed at the nature of art, you know, what is art about? What it can almost be eventually? I was coming with propositions that had never been presented before and there was a lot of interest because of that.

Indeed, from the Tar Series all the way through to your Indeterminate Lines?
That’s really the conceptual period. After Tar, from 66 to 1970, I moved onto mathematical texts, which became very complicated things and also, again, hugely successful.

How important is logic and mathematics to what you do currently?
I’m still making paintings and in fact, I had a show at the Venice Biennale last year with my newest paintings to incorporate mathematics, using text by Kurt Godel. I do it because it’s an interesting thing theoretically. You see, we all know what abstraction is and we are certain we know what it looks like, but it got to a point where we showed nothing and so all freedom had been taken. Suddenly I came along with paintings showing mathematical diagrams and what is interesting about it, to be precise, is that, that painting does not look like an abstract painting, but still you have to recognize that you have in front of you the highest level of abstraction that painting can present.

A lot of people think that I am a mathematician sometimes and that I understand everything that I present, but I say no, Cezanne was painting plants and trees but he wasn’t a botanist. You just use disciplines in order to extend the feel of art

You have some very interesting moments in your life that are very well documented, for instance, when you saw a painting by Ad Reinhardt at Donald Judd’s foundation. You know have a foundation of your own; what is the aim of it?
There are several aspects of course. I am very lucky because really early on I was close to all of the artists that are today hugely famous but at that time we were just friends, exhibiting together at galleries all over Europe. I knew immediately that we were giants and in fact, as soon as I started to make a little bit of money, since I’ve never understood why people keep money in the bank, I started to buy some of their work for nothing, no more than $1000. But we were all extremely happy, so for me it was fabulous, because I was surrounded by artistry. We never thought it would cost money one day, we just knew we were doing the right thing, in the right place and at the right time. I was surrounded by those things and eventually after many, many years I realised I had a collection.

After seeing the Donald Judd Foundation in Marfa, Texas, I thought, my god, I have to do something because no one is doing anything like this outside of Marfa. Since I have this beautiful property in the South of France, I decided on pooling all of the other artists works and my own, just like Judd, making a space which is ideal to install my kind of art. This was Judd’s idea, to finally have the space for his art. I do it all because I like art so much, my dream was to have a bed in a museum, so now, I basically do have a bed in a museum. It’s also to save all that I have been doing, because if I died tomorrow my kids would have to sell the property in order to pay the taxes because there is so much value.

Instead, I give everything to the foundation, meaning that I give everything to the people. I have a theory about this way of thinking – if I was lucky enough to have this kind of life, the talent to do the art, to be friends with these people, to exchange with them, because I was not only buying from them, it means a lot, which means that I should give back. It’s my natural way of thinking.

So what you have been describing is a moment in time in which everyone was united, living in such a procreative period, do you think it will ever happen again?
I’m sure it’s happening all the time. It must be happening in cities where artists are going because they feel it is where it should be happening. I’m sure that in Beijing even right now, artists are meeting, having drinks an dinner together and creating a new atmosphere. When you live that experience you don’t realize that you are living history. See today, someone is writing my life, but when I say that I was at Max’s Kansas City dancing a slow with Rauschenberg, with Andy Warhol sitting next to me and Lichtenstein here, at that time it was “hey Bob – how are you?”. Fifty years later when retell the stories everyone is dumbfounded.

Most of your success started in America, but you chose to build your foundation in France. What’s the significance of that?
The foundation is primarily American. When I created it 10 years ago I wasn’t sure why, but originally I was told that it was a good idea and I was ok making money, you know, it was probably the year when Sotheby’s came to me. I had so much money I didn’t know what to do, so I was told to make a foundation. I didn’t understand the interest but I did it. Then one day when I realised that I wanted to make one in the South of France I decided to put them together, altering the status of the one in America, which is not strictly a foundation because it just wasn’t very dynamic. I intend on changing that from this point on however.

This is a private museum, obviously.
It doesn’t belong to me anymore after. It’s not as if I was putting my collection in a museum and it’s my collection then after two more I want to sell it, absolutely not, I am giving it. I want to die with nothing but I hope I will have done something with my life and I really mean that. That’s it.

Could you tell us a little bit more about what you have done with Martell? Why do you think it’s such a great match?
They are more famous than me; many people are drinking Martell every day and very few are buying Venet! It’s a very prestigious brand and when they asked me to do something with them my first thought was, how can I do something interesting? So I hesitated a little bit and busied myself with other things and luckily they were just so kind throughout the whole process. Then one day, during which I was very much involved in a project with Versailles, I thought about attempting to re-create the sculptures at Versailles in miniature versions and placing the bottle directly in the centre. I went ahead with this idea and soon we designed the bottle  to correlate with my original thoughts  and in the end I was so impressed with everyone at Martell. They were virtually more daring than I was.

When you had your first international exhibition, you also toured Shanghai and Hong Kong, correct?
That came out of the exhibition I did by the Eiffel Tower on the Champ de Mars, so I immediately found myself in talks with a friend of mine about doing a big show in Hong Kong and then Shanghai, so I thought why not?

When was that?
Let me see, Paris was 1994 and so that means Hong Kong was ‘95.

Have you been back to Hong Kong or Shanghai?
I was back in Hong Kong last year and Shanghai, this year. We keep up lots of projects with them, like the Bernar Venet sculpture park, a big idea we are working on at the moment.

What about London?
I haven’t ever been that lucky with London. In 1976, I did a big conceptual art show at the ICA and since then, nothing. Now, I could have done, but it was not the kind of gallery that I was interested in exhibiting in – it just wasn’t big enough. I have been waiting for the next time I can return though. The possibility to do a big show in the UK might become a reality soon however, in 2016, near Oxford actually, in a newly created sculpture park. So we shall see.

 by Ethan Long

Images courtesy of Martell

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